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Overview of The Main Ideas in Descartes' Meditations

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The path of Descartes to secure science begins with a fundamental doubt. Descartes states that he was often wrong and also learned a lot of wrongs in his scientific education. He wants to achieve certain knowledge that he doubts everything, which is an uncertain knowledge. The doubt aims to arrive at a primary, at least true knowledge if such a thing exists. Because only a fundamentally secure knowledge assures the real science being built up.

However, it cannot be a question of doubting each statement individually. That would be a never-ending task. On the contrary, the bases on which a specific knowledge is built up are to be examined. Descartes addresses these foundations. The first basis in the relationship of our knowledge to the things outside of us is our senses. We mean to experience through the senses of things except ourselves. However, the senses can deceive us, as we know from our daily life experience: from afar we see a tower as square, which in truth is round. We can be fooled by the rod held in water, which we consider broken. We are subject to numerous optical and acoustic illusions.

On the contrary, we have every reason to doubt it. So we doubt about single sensory knowledge. Doubt has here the meaning: to hold back the consent of the consciousness to the statement. We tend to assume that the things we perceive sensually are the way we perceive them sensually. However, that has often proved to be a delusion. It is not because we have these sensory perceptions that one has to doubt, but that things outside of us are the way they represent the sensory ideas, but that is to be doubted.

When we doubt our sensory perception, it is usually to correct it or to determine whether or not it is true. We pull the stick out of the water. We are doing investigations to show whether what we sensually perceive is actual or not. We try to assimilate our sense perception to the presupposed real situation, to replace it with something other than the wrong, and to correct it.

In the fourth meditation, Descartes explains why people are wrong and make mistakes, even though there is God and he could have created us as perfect beings. Descartes explains this by saying that God has given us a perfect will. Since our will is perfect, it is also unlimited and extends to areas we cannot know/grasp. Thus, according to Descartes, mistakes are made. If we will only extend to what our minds could grasp, we would not make any mistakes. In line with this, man is to blame for making mistakes, because he can only decide within the framework of something in which he has enough sense for it.

The third meditation is probably the centerpiece of the entire text because here Descartes wants to show that knowledge is possible despite the hyperbolic doubt. For this, he leads the so-called ideological theory of God. This is so called because Descartes concludes from his idea or the idea of God to its necessary existence. God is perfect and therefore useful, which is why he would not allow the man to be continuously driven by an evil genius (or himself). So if Descartes can show that there must be a good god, the evil genius argument is refuted, and knowledge is possible.

The basic idea of the proof of God is that the idea of God must have some cause and Descartes argues that this cause must be God himself.

The argument is as follows:

  1. I have an idea of a being that is “perfect and infinite” (this being is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent, etc.) – p. 123
  2. This idea must have a cause. – p. 123
  3. There must be at least as much reality in the total cause of an effect as there is in the effect.– pp. 123-4
  4. What is infinite and perfect has more reality than what is imperfect and finite.
  5. Our idea of God has infinite, perfect being as its objective reality. (objective reality: reality something has just in our idea.)
  6. There must be at least as much formal reality in the cause of an idea as there is objective reality in the idea itself. (formal reality: reality something has outside of our idea.)
  7. Therefore, the formal reality of the cause of my idea of God must be infinite perfect being.
  8. So this idea must have come to me from some other being, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent, etc, (in other words, God!)

The argument of the existence of God made by Descartes is based on the concept of cause and effect in which he claims that everything, including his thoughts to everything external, is the effect of a cause. The quote below goes into further detail.

‘For whence, I ask, could an effect get its reality, if not from its cause? And how could the cause give that reality to the effect, unless it also possessed that reality? Hence it follows that something cannot come into being out of nothing, and also that what is more perfect (that is, what contains in itself more reality) cannot come into being from what is less perfect.’ (Descartes, Pg. 22).

In the above quote, Descartes makes the point that what contains more reality from something that has less reality; this means that a cause must have more reality than it’s effect because it would be impossible for something with less reality to create something with more reality. This argument of Descartes is strong enough to be considered infallible because all of the points support each other so strongly.

The fourth premise is the sticking point of the whole argument: Descartes must show here why we do not only arrive at a representation of God through the negation of the imperfect and finite, and why this notion is not empty. According to Descartes, this idea cannot be empty at first, because it is too bright and clear. Descartes’ idea of ​​God distinguishes it as an ‘infinite, independent, all-wise, almighty substance.’ How can we reach this idea? If the mind does not add anything to the representational content, the following holds good: Through mental operations, we cannot enrich our ideas in content; i.e. we cannot develop an idea of ​​perfection from ideas of our imperfections if we have not always possessed the concept of the latter. So far, Descartes has shown that we must have an innate idea of ​​God. Why should God cause it? If this is the case, one can deduce the idea of ​​perfection with the causal principle for the existence of a perfect cause. Again, if only God is perfect, one can assert the necessary existence of God on this basis.

Descartes links perfection with wholeness, meaning that these forces couldn’t be called perfect unless they were unified. Descartes believes to have properly rooted out all possibilities for god’s nonexistence; through the process of elimination we are left with the fact that God must exist.

Why then, is Descartes so absolutely sure that God exists if God is not a part of the ‘thinking thing’ that is Descartes because that would require Descartes to also be all perfect to know that God is perfect.

Since these attempts do not seem successful, we could try to circumvent the circle by claiming that the actual rule is not dependent on God, since the skeptic is also obliged to believe that what he is just consciously experiencing is true. God is only responsible for the truth of memories. However, in the first meditation, Descartes questions precisely this condition by suggesting that the deceiver god could also make evident, conscious truths such as 2 + 3 = 5 appear false. This defence strategy would be self-contradictory.

All in all, Descartes has succeeded in arriving at the knowledge he sought to some extent. The basic strategy of Descartes’s method of doubt is to defeat skepticism on its own ground and this is logical. Although our senses may deceive us, the bases on which a specific knowledge is built up are to be examined, we do investigations to show whether what we sensually perceive is actual or not.

Additionally, Descartes’ efforts in Meditation 3 to prove God’s existence from simple but controversial premises and his tendency to formulate it in different ways pave the way for further discussions.

At the end, Descartes’ method and thoughts are just one “approach”. They do not, in any way, eliminate the need of the other methods of gaining knowledge. They stand firm in their place as always.


  1. Descartes, R. (2008). Meditations on First Philosophy With Selections from the Objections and Replies. (M. Moriarty, Translator.) New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

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